Sir Ronnie Flanagan, chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary of Northern Ireland, bears little resemblance to his caricature, courtesy of many Irish republicans, of a despotic leader of the SS RUC. He has a benign, pragmatic face and the look of a man rarely troubled. He is of reassuring height and weight - a testimony to his days as a hooker, representing Ulster schools at rugby. Indeed, he was once selected to play in an Ireland B squad against France, although he never managed to get on the pitch. The real Flanagan is neither stern nor aloof (which I had expected) but has an easy-going, courteous and measured manner - his shield, perhaps, to protect him from one of the most demanding and high-pressured policing roles in the world.

Normally, with men of Flanagan's position, I would feign ignorance and pretend to misunderstand the subject, in order to wrongfoot him into revelation. But I needn't have worried. Flanagan is expansive and open, with a talent for reasoning and cheerfulness. Even his stripey tie is worthy of a smile. The Chief, as he is known to colleagues, is regarded as ''a copper's copper''. He lives in Helen's Bay, west of Bangor, an area in Co Down that has two beaches flanking Crawfordsburn Country Park. It is named after Helen Sheridan, mother of the first Marquis of Dufferin and Ava, the famed Victorian landowner and benefactor.

There is an excellent nine-hole golf course

featuring trees with names inspired by the

novels of Sir Walter Scott, favourite author of the marquis. The ornate railway station was the responsibility of the marquis, and the village is connected by rail and bus to Bangor and Belfast. Flanagan doesn't actually get the bus, as

protocol and security dictate that he travel

separately with bodyguards, but sometimes he wishes he could. It's a class thing, you see. Flanagan, ever full of surprises, is - whisper it - a bit of a socialist.

During the 1907 Belfast docks strike, Flanagan's grandfather and great-uncle had been right-hand men of James Connolly, the trade-union leader born into the Victorian slums of Edinburgh, who once served in the British army and who was one of the leading socialists of his generation. Connolly played a heroic but ultimately doomed role in the 1916 Easter

rising and was subsequently executed. The Chief's grandfather was a docker when he left the army and both he and his brother were responsible for keeping sectarianism out of the docks. ''It was pretty tough in those days,'' Flanagan recalls, ''and they thought Connolly was pretty mad for ever getting involved in the uprising. But I think it's fair to say that, without being too dramatic about it, I grew up in a household, if it's possible in Belfast, that was free from any sectarian thought or bigotry.''

''Originally the family would have been from County Cork,'' says the RUC chief. His father was a Protestant with a distinctly Catholic moniker - John Patrick Flanagan - and was born on St Patrick's Day. John Patrick Flanagan was a shipyard workers' leader in the Belfast yards all his working life. He had a passionate interest in literature and was an ardent admirer of Charles Dickens and WB Yeats (whose

poems the chief constable can recite by heart). Flanagan senior emphasised to his son the need for getting working people to recognise their common interests and not to be divided by religion. ''It's a dimension that is constantly missed here,'' the chief constable says of the Northern Irish conflict, ''the class dimension.''

At a time when there was a risk of sectarian splits, his relatives did their best as trade-union representatives. They had worked very closely with Connolly to ensure working class people didn't let themselves be split along sectarian lines because they were all experiencing the same hardships. This background, Flanagan says, fed his own quiet determination to conduct the future of Northern Ireland security along the lines of shared identity. In what he describes as a liberal democracy, he says the only way to bring about change is through peaceful political action. Ask Flanagan about his socialist credentials and he replies, in a whisper reserved for matters of intimacy or secrecy: ''I don't know whether it would be impolitical of me to say I was soft socialist but I feel very passionately about the concept of equality for all. Everybody should have an opportunity to make the very best of

themselves, as they see it. I think that's very important.''

We meet at the RUC headquarters in the Knock area of Belfast and, somewhat surprisingly, the security is fairly low-key. A few weeks earlier, the annual Drumcree circus passed with little incident, unlike in previous years when the tense stand-off at Portadown in Co Armagh erupted in violence. The protest by almost 1,500 Orange marchers was muted when they were again stopped from marching down the

Garvaghy Road in the Catholic area of the town after a ruling by the Northern Ireland Parades Commission. Perhaps this explains why there are no vehicle, bag or body searches - only polite, grim-faced policemen trying to embrace Chris Patten's controversial proposals for police reform, amid the decommissioning and demilitarisation deadlock that is threatening the power-sharing government in Stormont. The emphasis is on a scaled-down, discreet and smiley-faced RUC. Today, Flanagan, who is 52, has eschewed his uniform of rank, preferring a crisp white shirt, tie and casual trousers. The room is neat and uncluttered. On a far wall is a poem by Yeats.

Flanagan joined the RUC in 1970, after a recruits course at the force's former training depot in Enniskillen in Co Fermanagh, two weeks before his twenty-second birthday. At that time, the force was reformed and unarmed. ''People talk about the Patten report now but the Hunt report in 1970 was a much more radical report on policing then. People thought that the Troubles were over. There was a great outburst of violence on the streets in 1969 and then they believed it would be over. As far as policing was concerned, the RUC was totally reorganised. There was this great encouragement for people to join the police service, to come and be part of the new police.''

It was a baptism of fire. His first night on duty was spent guarding the wreckage of the Royal Navy recruiting office in Belfast, which had been bombed earlier that day. Yet his keenest memory of guard duty is of February 6, 1971. The young Flanagan was left alone to guard three bodies in the old Belfast morgue. The dead included Gunner Robert Curtis, the first British soldier to be killed in the Troubles when he was shot by an IRA gunman. Alongside Curtis were Barney Watt and Jim Saunders, two IRA

members killed by the British army. ''There was this notion that the IRA might try to spirit the corpses away and I was there to guard them. I had no firearms or anything.''

A few days later, the funeral of the first IRA man killed in the Curtis incident took place. A group of Protestants blocked the small procession and one of them opened the hearse and stole the tricolour flag and ran off in triumph. At the next funeral, there were around 7,000 nationalists, protesting and waving hurling sticks. ''I was amazed,'' says Flanagan. ''That's when I began to think that the whole process was going to take a lot longer than I imagined.''

Flanagan returns to his father's idea that people should never allow themselves to be manipulated the way he felt they had been manipulated in years gone by. ''The ordinary people of the Shankill Road had much more in common with the ordinary people of the Falls Road than the people of the Falls had with the people of Dublin or the people from the Shankill had with people from London or Birmingham. How have they let themselves become so divided? That's the tragedy.''

There is no mockery intended but he believes there is a risk that politicians have exploited those divisions and that people think Northern Ireland politics is simply about their heritage, their culture and their tradition being eroded. He subscribes to the theory that two minorities exist in Northern Ireland. On the one hand, there is a numerical minority who see themselves as Irish instead of British. On the other hand, there are those who form the statistical majority in the north but who don't see themselves as the majority. They see themselves as a threatened minority in the context of the whole island of Ireland. ''So we have to police two minorities who both fear and suspect and distrust the other, manifesting itself in out-and-out violence,'' says Flanagan. ''I think there are people who have exploited those divisions. I have 65 officers in Kosovo and I visit them

regularly and, when I see what mankind is capable of inflicting on mankind, I just wish that everybody in Northern Ireland could go out to see that and realise how well-off they are, in

relative terms - realise how little there is to divide them. There is more to unite them, far more that they have in common than there is to pull them apart.''

Flanagan rose rapidly through the ranks of the RUC and, as chief constable, he has spent his time combating the longest-running republican and loyalist campaigns in Irish history. In Castlereagh interrogation centre, he has served at the sharp end and, similarly, in the RUC Special Branch. Terrorist activities are on the increase in Northern Ireland and the RUC, in 2000-2001, saw a rise in murders, shootings and bombing incidents, as well as so-called punishment attacks by paramilitaries. In his recent review of the year, Flanagan warned, with

glaring understatement, that Northern Ireland is still not a ''normal policing environment''.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland will start operating from September, replacing the RUC. Flanagan believes that he and his force have grasped the nettle of police reform, despite feeling hurt that the crest and the title, of which his force is proud, will be changed. ''I think there is a philosophical debate in relation to the

Patten recommendation, in that regard. When he says it should be something that should have no vestige of anything Irish or British, should we not be arriving at a position where nobody should feel any need to submerge their tradition or culture but neither should they feel any need to flaunt it?'' What Flanagan will concede is that, if name change brings about a great gain, ''where young men and women of every background and tradition are enabled or willing by change, then that great gain is worth the pain involved''.

Applicants for the new Police Service are 35 per cent Catholics, but how many are from hardline republican areas? ''I honestly don't have that analysis,'' says Flanagan. ''It will only be in September when the details are produced of a pool of suitably qualified people, then we will know geographically where candidates come from. At this stage, I don't know but I would be surprised if applicants were from areas like Ballymurphy [in west Belfast] or the Bogside [in Derry city].''

The chief constable is married to his childhood sweetheart and they have three sons, one of whom is in the RUC. (Flanagan won't talk to me about them - ''My family cherish their

privacy.'') Flanagan grew up one of a family of six at 31 Ballymoney Street on the Oldpark Road in north Belfast, although the house has been demolished and the area has changed beyond recognition. There was little or no money in his or any other family from that area, although he baulks when I suggest they were impoverished. ''My parents would be aghast at that description. Nobody ever wanted money or needed it.''

He laughs as he recalls one Christmas, when he was eight or nine, and he found his present. It was an electric train. ''I opened it up and thought, 'Jeez, I've got what the rich kids get.' A wee engine and about two carriages.'' In the house, everything had to be plugged into the lights as there was no socket, and the flex would have been taped across the ceiling. ''So this train set was plugged into the light, all ready for the big switch on, and somebody switched it on and there was a flash and a bang and the train was blown against the wall. Nobody knew it needed a transformer - 240 volts straight through this thing. You know what I got for Christmas the next year? A transformer. A year later and the train worked. So there was no money but it was the same for everyone.''

It was from here he learned his intellectual certainty and moral forcefulness. ''Years ago, going swimming, everybody went together - Prods, Catholics, it didn't matter. Other times, all the wee Prods and Catholics gathered the wood for the bonfire and they all went and watched the bands. None of us knew what the history of this was and nobody cared.''

During his last year at school and throughout his first couple of years at university, he worked for a local builder right in the heart of the Falls Road - a Catholic stronghold - and the workforce was entirely mixed. The young Flanagan walked down the Shankill to the Falls Road every day to work. ''There was a pub across the road,'' he recalls, ''which sold fantastic scrumpy, and the night that Celtic won the European Cup [on May 25, 1967], that whole workforce was there watching it on TV cheering them. You're talking about hardline Prods from the Shankill Road and hardline Catholics from the Falls Road, all cheering on Celtic. That would be unthinkable today - that a workforce on a building site could be so mixed and, if it was mixed, that it could join together in some common endeavour. That's the big heartbreak. Where I live now in Helen's Bay,'' he adds with a grin, ''everybody's mixed.

They can all go to their golf clubs. So there is a hidden dimension here about things that are never spoken.'' He pauses and says again: ''Maybe it's the class dimension.''

He was never in the Orange Order, but Flanagan resigned from the Freemasons because he felt that ''it was important and that, if some people had a perception that there was a remote chance of someone being favoured or not favoured because of their membership or non-membership, then it was better not to be a member at all.'' He believes the IRA military campaign is at an end and points out that republicans and loyalists need to realise there is no place for criminality. When asked about the murder this month of a 19-year-old Catholic man shot dead while waiting for a lift in Belfast, he says: ''The most cowardly murder you could imagine. Standing for a lift utterly defenceless, attacked by bastards on a motorbike. Just gunned him down like an animal.''

Rumours abound that Flanagan is set to quit as RUC chief as early as November this year or perhaps at the beginning of next year, after five years in the post. Many observers predict he will take up a lecturing position with the FBI in the United States. (In 1988, he was awarded a prestigious diploma after graduating from the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia.) He smiles conspiratorially and dodges the thrust of the question. ''I've no desire to write books or go on lecture tours,'' is all he will say.

Although Flanagan's own father was not a Catholic, there would have been very close

family members in mixed marriages. How did his father feel, I ask as I get up to leave, with such a distinctly Catholic name? Flanagan twists in his chair. ''What he would have felt and what I feel is that the Irish tradition and culture has almost been allowed to be hijacked. None of us should allow that. Being born in this part of the world, you should still embrace the Irish

culture. I would love to speak the language. I don't but I like the music, I like the dance, the art, and I think there is a risk that people from the unionist to the British tradition have allowed extreme republicans to hijack the Irish culture as if it was theirs and theirs alone. Clearly, it should be there to be enjoyed and revered by all. That's certainly how he would have viewed the world and my grandfather before him in the docks.''

Among my emaciated expectations of the chief constable of the RUC, his little insights arrive, replete with hidden possibilities. James Connolly might just have been surprised. n